ICE has no plan to vaccinate 13,860 immigrants in its custody against COVID-19. Here's how one of the US's most at-risk groups is falling through the cracks.

ICE has no plan to vaccinate 13,860 immigrants in its custody against COVID-19. Here's how one of the US's most at-risk groups is falling through the cracks.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement; Samantha Lee/Insider
  • Experts say incarcerated people should be among the first to receive the COVID vaccine.
  • But ICE has no plan to vaccinate detainees, an Insider investigation has found.
  • Experts raised concerns that thousands of detained immigrants were falling through the cracks.

When US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested Giovannie Morrison in October, the pandemic was burning through his home state of California. Naturally, he feared catching COVID-19 in a crowded immigration detention center.

A music promoter before the pandemic, Morrison was living in the city of Roseville, near Sacramento, and working as a day laborer. He told Insider that he carried hand sanitizer and wore a face covering everywhere he went.

But at the Golden State Annex, a private ICE facility operated by GEO Group in Kern County, Morrison said he was confined to an "isolation dorm" with other recent arrestees. He received one rapid COVID-19 test, but said the bunks were close together and few detainees wore face coverings.
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"We were breathing the same oxygen without face masks," Morrison, who is 39, said. After three weeks, he said, the group joined a larger dorm where 19 people slept on bunks in a single room. "They say social distancing, but it's not social distancing."

Morrison might be able to breathe easier if - as with many people incarcerated around the country, including California - he and his fellow detainees had early access to a COVID-19 vaccine. But an Insider investigation has found that there is no federal plan to vaccinate the nearly 14,000 people in ICE custody, leaving life-and-death decisions about who gets the vaccine to a patchwork of state and local health authorities and managers at individual facilities.

This story is based on nearly 100 public-records requests, inquiries to more than 50 state and county health departments, and almost two dozen ICE facilities, interviews with 11 legal and public-health experts, and accounts from eight people who have experienced immigration detention during the pandemic.
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ICE told Insider that it was in "ongoing dialogues" with state and local health officials about vaccinations for detainees. But when we asked state and local officials about that, none said that they had heard from ICE on this issue, and Insider's records requests for communications between ICE and state health officials turned up no evidence of coordination. ICE detainees constitute one of the nation's most at-risk populations, and they are housed in a loose network of more than 150 facilities where social distancing can be nearly impossible.

The lack of a plan has bred widespread confusion among detained immigrants, leaving many in the dark about when they might expect a vaccine. The resulting chaos has drawn criticism from human-rights advocates and public-health experts, who say the federal government is shirking its duty to those in its care.

California has a plan to vaccinate its prison population, but ICE detainees are falling through the cracks

As early as December, California health authorities began preparing to vaccinate some prison populations that have been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The first vaccinations in the state's criminal-justice system began on December 22 - just a week after the federal government sent the first doses to states.
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But six weeks later, California is one of several states that have not released any plan to vaccinate immigrants detained in ICE facilities within their borders.

Morrison said the facility conducted a survey in January to see how many people might want the COVID-19 vaccine, but he has not heard any updates since then. He expressed fears about taking it because he does not have access to information about what's in it.

When Insider contacted the Kern County Public Health Department, a spokesperson said the facility had been in touch about becoming an approved vaccine provider. Asked about any plans to vaccinate immigrants there, she said, "You would have to ask the facility."
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But GEO Group - which has reported at least 358 COVID-19 cases at its California ICE facilities since the start of the pandemic, according to ICE data - declined to comment on vaccination plans at its facilities, and pointed Insider back to the health department.

The private-prison operator said "the timing of vaccine distribution to staff, inmates, and detainees is presently being directed by the local and state health departments." It shared a list of its general COVID-19 protocols such as testing, cleaning, and air filtration, but directed follow-up questions about the vaccine to ICE, which did not comment on the facility.

ICE says it's in 'ongoing dialogues' with health departments. Dozens of health departments say that's not true.

Public-health experts have urged states to prioritize incarcerated populations as they roll out their vaccination plans. Prisons are congregate settings, where residents are often forced into close quarters, making the rapid spread of outbreaks more likely. In October, the medical journal Lancet found that "40 of the 50 largest clustered outbreaks in the country have occurred in jails and prisons."
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And the US disproportionately incarcerates many populations that face a higher risk of dying from the disease, including people of color and people with underlying conditions such as hypertension and diabetes.

"Several reports have shown that prisons and detention facilities are hotspots for COVID," Tom Frieden, the CEO of Resolve to Save Lives and director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2009 to 2017, told Insider. "There are already huge disparities when it comes to vaccine uptake and availability for racial minorities. We don't want to widen this gap by missing key segments of the population who are detained."

Twenty-four states and territories have included incarcerated people as a high-priority population in their state vaccine plans, according to a December analysis by the COVID Prison Project. Washington, Minnesota, Alaska, Michigan, and Ohio specifically prioritized incarcerated people who are medically vulnerable to COVID-19.
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ICE told Insider in January that it was "working with state and local health departments to ensure that the ICE detainee population is included in state vaccination plans." In a follow-up email, a spokeswoman, Danielle Bennett, added that ICE was in "ongoing dialogues" with departments of health.

But health departments across the US said that's not true. Insider contacted health departments in all 40 states where ICE detention facilities are located. Of the dozens that responded in January and February, none said ICE had coordinated with them on a COVID-19 vaccination plan for detained immigrants. Nineteen state and five local health departments explicitly said they had not been contacted by the agency at all.

Several states suggested they are not taking responsibility for vaccinating detained immigrants

California was far from the only state where ICE facilities and health authorities were unable or unwilling to provide detailed answers to Insider's questions about vaccine access for detained immigrants.
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Most states told Insider that they had not begun vaccinations for ICE detainees, even though many would likely qualify under state guidelines because of age or health conditions. ICE said it does not collect data on the age of its detainees.

A few health departments went further, suggesting they had no plans to take responsibility for vaccinating detained immigrants. The health departments of New York, Maryland, New Mexico, and Texas told Insider to contact ICE for information on vaccines for immigrants, despite what the agency had told Insider.

Several states contacted by Insider were operating under the assumption that ICE would have gotten its own stash of vaccines directly from the federal government and was responsible for its own detainees.
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The Washington State Department of Health initially told Insider that "ICE is an agency within the Department of Homeland Security and DHS can speak to how their allocation [of vaccine] is being used." A spokesperson later added if ICE facilities were not receiving vaccines directly from the federal government, they would be eligible to receive vaccines from the state, but did not say whether any vaccinations of ICE detainees had happened or was being planned.

The department did not believe that anyone from ICE had reached out, the spokesperson added.

The Arizona Department of Health Services said that until late January, it believed that ICE facilities were "covered through a direct federal allocation." The state has since begun outreach to local health departments and the ICE facilities.
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The Florida Department of Health said that "ICE is a federal program and therefore, would receive the COVID-19 vaccine from federal allocations," and referred Insider to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for additional information. In response to a public-records request, it said it did not have any record of correspondence, meetings, or guidance from ICE about the vaccine rollout for detained immigrants.

DHS is not on the CDC list of federal agencies that have received their own allotments of vaccine doses. About 900 DHS staff, including some ICE employees, have been vaccinated as of early February through a partnership with the Veterans Health Administration, the VHA said. They can also be vaccinated through state programs, if eligible.

State health departments in California, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, and New Hampshire did not respond to multiple calls and emails from Insider seeking comment for this story. Minnesota referred Insider to the governor's office, which did not respond. Michigan, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin confirmed receipt of our questions but did not respond in the two weeks before publication.
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The CDC did not respond to Insider's request for comment. DHS referred Insider to ICE for comment.

'There must be a plan in place that involves ICE, individual detention facilities, and all levels of government'

In response to a summary of Insider's findings, public health and legal experts raised concerns that thousands of detained immigrants were falling through the cracks of the largest vaccination program in history. "Everybody needs to be vaccinated for everybody else to be safe," Ranit Mishori, a senior medical advisor at the organization Physicians for Human Rights, told Insider. "You're shooting yourself in the foot if you're not vaccinating the detainees and only vaccinating the guards. The responsibility for vaccinations, and the responsibility for their well-being, lies with ICE, lies with DHS, and it needs to come from the federal government."
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"I think that the government risks constitutional violations if it doesn't vaccinate people in its custody," added Danielle Jefferis, an assistant professor at the California Western School of Law in San Diego. "It's on Congress to beef up its oversight, first of all, and, second, to provide some means of a legal remedy for people who are hurt."

"To ensure that immigrants and ICE detainees are vaccinated there must be a plan in place that involves ICE, individual detention facilities, and all levels of government," Frieden said.

Not everyone agrees with the experts. Rep. John Katko, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, told Insider that DHS should vaccinate employees first and "should not be considering vaccinating individuals in its custody until the American public has widespread access to the vaccine." About 46 million vaccine doses have been administered in the US so far.
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"We are talking about a pool of people still in custody mostly made up of those with criminal convictions or with a final order of removal," Katko added. "It is beyond me why anyone would be calling on ICE to prioritize vaccinating those who broke the law and will be returned to their home country before their own employees."

Almost half of ICE detainees are classified as 'No ICE Threat Level,' meaning they have no criminal convictions

The sprawling ICE detention system belongs to the largest immigration detention apparatus in the world. It incarcerates immigrants across the country through government contracts with private facilities and local jails. An average of more than 16,600 immigrants have been in its custody each day since October 1, according to data published by the agency on January 25.

ICE told Insider that it has worked to reduce the number of immigrants it detains since the pandemic began in March, adding that it has "released over 900 individuals from custody after evaluating their immigration history, criminal record, potential threat to public safety, flight risk, and national security concerns." A federal court order has also forced the agency to release 3,259 medically vulnerable people, so far, ICE data showed.
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Just under half of ICE's average daily population of detainees are classified as "No ICE Threat Level," meaning they lack any criminal convictions, according to an analysis of the agency's data. More than 4,800 additional immigrants were classified under the next-lowest threat level, which includes nonviolent convictions. Of the eight current and former detainees who spoke with Insider, half were taken into custody during the pandemic.

A nurse at a Florida detention facility said she is almost positive the health department won't provide vaccines to detainees - even though that's where ICE instructed her to go

Insider also surveyed dozens of ICE facilities across the country - including private detention centers and local sheriff's departments that contract with the agency to house its detainees - for information on vaccine access for detained immigrants. Of the nearly two dozen that responded to Insider's questions and public-records requests, more than half were unable to share any vaccination plan for ICE detainees in their custody. A dozen said explicitly that they did not have one.

Only two facilities, Bergen County Jail in New Jersey and the Wakulla County Correctional Facility in Florida, said that they had been in touch with ICE about vaccinations for detained immigrants. However, in Bergen County, a public-records request for correspondence between the county jail and ICE turned up no responsive records. When asked about the discrepancy, a public-information officer said that all communications with ICE were nonwritten.
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In Florida, email records show that an ICE employee asked contracted medical staff in late January about whether they would be providing vaccines to immigrant detainees. But both the ICE staffer and the medical contractors seemed in the dark about the correct protocol for vaccinating the jail population.

The ICE employee, Nakitia Jackson, a lieutenant commander with the ICE Health Service Corps in the Miami field office, emailed staffers at Southern Correctional Medicine, a private contractor that provides medical care to correctional facilities, including Wakulla, to inquire about whether the facility had begun providing COVID vaccines to ICE detainees. "If not are you planning to in the near future?" she wrote. Amber Shear, a nurse for Southern Correctional who works at Wakulla, replied that they hadn't. "I gave a number of vaccines to order, but we have yet to receive anything, and I haven't heard back," she said. Shear later realized that she had requested flu, not COVID, vaccines for the facility, records show.
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In a statement to Insider, Geneva Stokely, the public-records custodian at the Wakulla County Sheriff's Office, said that Jackson later instructed the department to contact the local health department. Stokely said they have done this and are waiting on a response back.

But Shear, the Wakulla nurse, didn't seem optimistic that they would procure any vaccines for detainees. "I'm almost positive the health department will not provide them," she wrote to a colleague on February 1, according to an email obtained by Insider. Stokely said Shear would not provide comment for this story.

"We do not currently have a vaccination plan in place," Stokely said. "As of now, vaccinations in Florida are still going only to those 65 years of age or older. We do not have any detainees in the facility who meet this age requirement."
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66 documented vaccinations

One private prison operator, MTC, told Insider that the company was working with local health departments and ICE to access the vaccine for staff and detainees at its three ICE facilities in Texas, New Mexico, and California. A spokesperson said some MTC staffers had received vaccines.

Yet the Texas Department of State Health Services - the top health authority in a state with more ICE detainees than any other - contradicted MTC, saying that no ICE contractors had contacted the agency about vaccines for detainees.

When asked about this discrepancy, MTC cited phone calls between the company's health administrators in Texas and two staffers at the Texas health department. But the health department told Insider that the two staffers "have not been working with staff at the IAH Detention Center" except to provide a small quantity of vaccine for eligible MTC workers. "There was no discussion of vaccinating ICE detainees," the health department said.
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Local health departments in New Mexico and California did not respond to multiple requests for comment about MTC facilities in their jurisdictions.

Two other operators of private detention centers, CoreCivic and GEO Group, provided general comments about their COVID-19 protocols, but did not answer detailed questions about the vaccine rollout for detainees, directing Insider back to ICE.

In all, Insider documented just 66 vaccinations for detained immigrants at four jails: one in Massachusetts, one in Maryland, and two in New Jersey. Additionally, Insider learned that another facility in Massachusetts, the Plymouth County Correctional Facility, planned to provide vaccines to staff and detainees in January, according to documents obtained from the Plymouth County Sheriff's Department in a records request. A spokesperson for the department did not respond to follow-up inquiries to confirm whether the rollout occurred, or how many people received vaccines.
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These numbers are far from nationally comprehensive, but among the populations Insider surveyed, they represent a tiny fraction of the total.

'One of our main concerns is the citizens of Glades County finding out we're giving it to county inmates'

Immigration attorneys in Louisiana, Florida, and Colorado contacted by Insider said they haven't heard anything about vaccines being offered in immigration detention facilities. Ananis Makar, an immigration lawyer in the Tampa area, told Insider that even before the pandemic, she often had to call facilities on behalf of clients with debilitating medical conditions, such as ear or throat infections, because they were denied access to doctors or adequate medical care.
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When she visited clients during the pandemic, Makar added, she feared for their safety and hers. "You get the public coming in and coming out," she said. "It's just a concentration of individuals who can essentially spread coronavirus to each other, and then it goes out to the general public."

Florida detention centers have been COVID-19 hotspots since the start of the pandemic. In April, 238 detained immigrants were quarantined at the Krome Detention Center in Miami after a coronavirus exposure.

Two months later, the Glades County Detention Center in Moore Haven - which contracts with ICE to house immigrants in addition to people incarcerated by the Florida justice system - was locked down after 11 guards tested positive and 320 detainees were exposed to the virus. Detainees with COVID told the Miami Herald at the time that they were being housed with healthy inmates. In July, a Glades County detainee, Onoval Perez-Montufar, 51, died in ICE custody after testing positive.
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Yet Glades County officials told Insider, in response to a records request, that they have no records of "any conversation [with ICE] on the possibility of giving the detainee population a coronavirus vaccine."

"We work very hard to manage the coronavirus with our facility and have done quite well with our medical protocols and intake screening processes," C.D. Pottorff, chief deputy at the Glades County Sheriff's Office, told Insider in a statement.

Pottorff had previously told Insider that even when the jail started to vaccinate its residents and staff, it would wait for ICE to approve and administer vaccinations for detained immigrants.
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He also suggested that anyone incarcerated at the jail, including people who are still waiting for a trial, would be last in line for the vaccine. "One of our main concerns is the citizens of Glades County finding out we're giving it to county inmates - since we're still administering vaccines for the public," he told Insider. "I have no idea when they'll have enough vaccinations to say that Glades County citizens are done, so it's just a wait and see kind of thing."

County jails in Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey are among the few facilities vaccinating detained immigrants

Howard County, which sits in Maryland between Baltimore and Washington, appears to have been one of the first jurisdictions to vaccinate immigrant detainees.

On January 7, the county health department vaccinated five of the 14 immigrants detained at Howard County Detention Center in Jessup, county spokeswoman Lisa M. de Hernandez told Insider. She added that the health department provided vaccines "without regard to inmate status, as that is in the best interest of public health."
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In total, the facility vaccinated 80 staffers and 40 detainees who opted in. The Maryland Department of Health - which did not share a plan for vaccinating ICE detainees, and directed Insider's questions to DHS - said it was not involved.

Howard County has contracted with ICE since 1995, and its healthcare record has been spotty. In October, the DHS Office of the Inspector General published a scathing report about a surprise 2019 visit to the facility, which then held 61 ICE detainees. The report found that the jail excessively strip-searched detainees and failed to provide two hot meals a day. "We identified violations of ICE detention standards that threatened the health, safety, and rights of detainees," it said.

Vaccination plans for ICE detainees vary drastically across the US - and even within states

Two ICE detention centers in New Jersey also told Insider that they had already vaccinated detained immigrants. Hudson County Jail said it had vaccinated about half of detained immigrants in its custody, or about 33 people, while Essex County Jail said it had vaccinated 13 of its roughly 220 ICE detainees.
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A spokesman for Essex County Jail said that counties have discretion over the doses they receive, and can choose whether to direct them to prisons and jails, as state guidelines instruct. "The state has not provided vaccines directly to county jails," he said.

Perhaps for that reason, a different policy seems to apply at Bergen County Jail, just 15 miles to the north. Although New Jersey included prisons and jails in Phase 1A of its vaccine-rollout plan, which began nearly two months ago, doses have not yet reached ICE detainees who are housed there.

Pascal "Shakoure" Charpentier, a formerly detained 48-year-old stepfather from Queens, New York, said that corrections officers at the jail had not provided any information about vaccines. "Their usual response, when we ask questions like that, is that they don't know yet," he told Insider in a phone interview.
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He added that his fears of COVID-19 only got worse when the jail consolidated two units into one, forcing detainees to share cells and making social distancing impossible. "There's a lot more interaction and close proximity that could definitely cause an unwanted breakout," Charpentier said.

Charpentier, whose wife is a nurse who sometimes works in a COVID unit in New York City, was arrested in July, even though his parents are US citizens who say he was born on an American military base in Germany. ICE seeks to deport him to Haiti, a country he says he has never visited.

When Insider interviewed Charpentier in early February, he was still in Bergen County Jail, and ICE had recently denied his request for a review of his incarceration on medical grounds due to his asthma, citing a 30-year-old felony conviction.
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As this story was being published, ICE changed course and released Charpentier to his home in New York, where his asthma could make him elegible for the vaccine on February 15. He has applied for a pardon from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who could prevent his deportation.
ICE has no plan to vaccinate 13,860 immigrants in its custody against COVID-19. Here's how one of the US's most at-risk groups is falling through the cracks.
Pascal “Shakoure” Charpentier and his wife Nathalie Sicard. Charpentier is in ICE custody at Bergen County Jail in New Jersey.Family Photo

When asked about vaccines, a Bergen County jail public-information officer said that "plans are being finalized to begin vaccinating detainees and inmates, based on pre-existing medical conditions," in coordination with the state health department.

At the Franklin County Jail and House of Correction, in Greenfield, Massachusetts, about 90 miles from Boston, 15 ICE detainees have received vaccines since late January, Nicholas Carne, a lieutenant at the sheriff's office, told Insider. Several other immigrant detainees at the facility declined, he added.
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A total of 387 people - including staff, detainees, and local residents who are eligible under the state's rollout plan - have been vaccinated at the facility as of February 10, records obtained by Insider showed.

According to the office's COVID-19 vaccination directive, issued in late December and obtained by Insider in a records request, the state health department provided the vaccines for the facility, in compliance with CDC guidelines and the state's vaccine plan, which included corrections staffers and incarcerated people in Phase 1.

Some detainees only recently gained access to masks and hand sanitizer, let alone vaccines

Roberto Carlos Guerrero Ramirez, a 29-year-old asylum seeker who has spent two years in ICE detention, said without hesitation that he would take the vaccine if he could. He already knows what it's like to contract COVID-19.
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Ramirez is incarcerated at the Seneca County Jail, in Tiffin, Ohio, a small city about 50 miles from Toledo. He came to the US from Nicaragua, seeking protection after he participated in protests against the government of President Daniel Ortega. According to Human Rights Watch, a brutal crackdown in 2018 left more than 300 protesters dead; many others were tortured.

When the pandemic began, Ramirez said, Seneca staff members did not wear masks or gloves and provided no information on how to stay safe from COVID-19. What little he could learn came from Americans incarcerated at the jail, who were in touch with their families. He had no access to masks, and if he wanted soap or shampoo, he had to buy it at the commissary for between $8 and $10 per item.

About 30 people currently sleep on 40 bunks spaced two feet apart, he added.
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In January, a COVID outbreak swept through Seneca and Ramirez tested positive. He said the jail gave him ibuprofen and cough medicine, but that he never saw a medical professional for the coronavirus. He said 10 people fell sick.

Only after the outbreak, Ramirez said, did staffers finally start to wear masks and gloves. He and other detainees were eventually provided disposable masks, he said, but they often fall apart from overuse.

'They treat us like criminals'

According to the Seneca County Sheriff's Office COVID-19 vaccine plan, which dates to January 18 and was obtained by Insider in a records request, "special consideration to receive vaccinations will be given to inmates and detainees that are at higher risk due to age or underlying medical conditions."
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Ramirez said he hadn't heard anything about it.

The Seneca County General Health District, the county's local health department, also confirmed to Insider that it was never contacted by ICE to discuss vaccinations for detained immigrants at the jail.

Ronald Green, the jail administrator at the Seneca County Sheriff's Office, referred Insider to ICE for comment. "I'm going to forward this information to them and if they feel they want to comment, they can go ahead and do that. I just don't have the authority to do that since they're not our detainees, they're ICE detainees," he said.
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Ramirez said he expected to be sent back soon to the place he tried so desperately to flee. He feared that, on his arrival back in Nicaragua, he'd be identified as a former protester, taken to a jail, and tortured.

He used the same word to describe ICE detention. "I came to this country to ask for asylum, but the only thing they've given me is torture," he said. "They treat us like criminals."
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